Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bill Veeck's "Good Luck Charm"

On August 9, 1944, the Brewers held a special pregame ceremony celebrating "Hal Peck Night." The Brewers' outfielder was showered with praise and presents:

Penny Peck and her daddy, Hal, look over the gifts which the Brewer outfielder received on Peck night at Borchert field Wednesday. Penny, 2, is about to have a baby brother or sister, so a high chair, a bath and other things for a brand new baby were among the gifts. The night was sponsored by the Land o'Lakes league, from which Hal came.
In addition to the baby gifts, Peck also received $330 in war bonds from the Brewers and "the four communities where he lived or played ball – Big Bend, Genesee, Mukwonago and Waukesha."

These sorts of events were part and parcel of the Borchert Field experience - the year before, Bill Veeck had thrown a pregame birthday party for manager Charlie Grimm.

He was also given "a German Boxer dog, which will take care of the rats on his Genesee premises so he won't be shooting off any more of his toes hunting the rodents."

This is where the tale gets really interesting - it is a reference to an incident which took place two years earlier. In early 1942, Hal Peck was a 25 year-old hot prospect poised for a breakout season, as reported in the Milwaukee Journal on May 24:

This is Hal Peck's year, Manager Charley Grimm of the Milwaukee Brewers insists. Ted Gullic, veteran outfielder who has helped school the Genesee Depot product, says it is Peck's year, too. On top of these opinions, Peck also thinks 1942 is his year. The way the young player fields his position, the way he throws, his speed and his hitting, all indicate that he will be a star. The picture shows his swing.
Peck delivered with a .333 average in the first three months of 1942. Although he had some weakness in the field, he was a powerhouse at the plate. Brewer owner Bill Veeck, who had been very successful in developing up-and-comers which he could sell to Major League clubs, knew he had something special. He fielded offers from half a dozen clubs for Peck, the best being $40,000 from the Chicago White Sox. As the American Association season was winding down, the contract was drawn up, and Hal looked bound for the South Side.

It was not to be. On September 1, Peck was hunting rats with a shotgun at his Genesee, Wisconsin home when he tripped over a vine, triggering the shotgun and shooting himself in the foot. Two of the toes on his left foot, the second and the third, had to be amputated. The Chicago deal was off, but the Brooklyn Dodgers were so impressed with Peck's hitting that that, just days after the accident, they bought him from the Brewers (albeit on a trial basis). While recuperating, Peck was interviewed about his move to Ebbets Field:
"Were you surprised about your sale to the Dodgers?" Peck was asked.

"Somewhat, I guess," answered Hal. "I'd just as soon stay with the Brewers. I like Milwaukee and I like the fans."

"You've got a chance, dear, to play in the big leagues," remarked Mrs. Peck.

"Yes, you're right. Besides, I've always been a National League fan anyway," said Hal, rubbing his bare left foot, which is bandaged around the toes. "Just think, the hunting season opened Saturday. I looked forward to that date. I've hunted so many years; so has my wife. We had figured on making a hunting trip this fall, but I had to meet with this accident. I guess I won't look at a gun again in a long, long time."
You might think that story was colorful enough, but it received extra embellishment in the Brooklyn papers:

Peck, for his part, was a somewhat reluctant Bum. He returned the first two contracts Brooklyn sent him, telling the Milwaukee Journal:

"I suppose they're afraid my foot won't let me play well enough to do them any good.

"I don't blame them for that and I'm willing to take a contract which covers that possibility. In fact, the contracts they sent provided for one salary to start and a larger one if I was still with the Dodgers after a certain date. That's all right, but even with the raise I still wouldn't be getting decent pay.

"I don't really care, either, because I'd just as soon play for Milwaukee."
He eventually came to terms, and with the agreement in hand, Peck reported to Brooklyn's Spring Training camp in West Point, New York the following spring.

Note the trouble Peck had with his shoes in his Dodger tryout.

Although he could still hit, Brooklyn's management had doubts about Hal's ability to play outside the batter's box. Aside from the flub mentioned in the Journal, he also found himself substituted on the basepath. Peck didn't see much action with the Bums - he played only one game in Brooklyn before being sent back to the Cubs on waivers. The complicated financial transaction highlights how the minor leagues worked at the time:
  1. In September 1942, the Brewers sell Peck to Brooklyn for $15,000 and another prospect, infielder Charles L. Brewster. The deal includes an out which must be exercised by May 15, 1943.
  2. The Brewers subsequently sell Brewster to the Cincinnati Reds for $7,500.
  3. The Dodgers let the May 15 deadline pass before trying to send Peck back to Milwaukee. They put Peck on waivers, and Chicago Cubs claim him for $7,500.
  4. Peck sits out most of the 1943 season recuperating from surgeries on his foot. In August, the Cubs trade him to... the Milwaukee Brewers.
The story is even more colorful that that. As it happens, the Cubs were in New York to take on the Bums when they claimed Peck in early 1943. Hal was told about his transfer after the pre-game workout with the Dodgers. He was then handed a set of road grays and moved over to the visiting dugout before the first pitch. He stayed with Chicago until August, when they sent him back to Milwaukee as part of a trade for Brewer second baseman Don "Pep" Johnson.

So Hal Peck found himself back in Borchert Field, and the Brewers found themselves with their slugger in the lineup and $22,500 in their bank account. For a team which depended on player sales to stay in the black, this was a significant coup.

Peck enjoyed being back at the Orchard, hitting .444 with 15 RBI in the last months of the 1943 season. His foot continued to bother him, hindering his work in the field and on the bases, but after a restful off-season, he was eager to return to Borchert Field for the 1944 season.

Peck's foot continued to bother him into 1944 Spring Training. But help was on the way, and from a most unlikely source—the stands.

When the Brewers opened their first home stand, Walter McGuire, shoe salesman, amateur researcher in foot problems and rabid fan, offered to help Peck. He developed a special shoe pad to ease pressure on the injured foot. That apparently was the answer.

Now Peck uses four pair of baseball shoes, alternating them every week, while McGuire adjusts and supplies new pads. McGuire also developed a steet shoe with special supports for Peck.
McGuire's shoes apparently did the trick. 1944 was a good year for Peck - he hit .415 in the first half of the season - and as noted in this stunning June 18, 1944 photo series, he was considered by some to be "the greatest prize in the minor leagues":

Which brings us back to "Hal Peck Night." Although Veeck was in the Pacific with the Marines at the time, one can't help but wonder if the celebration was at least partly planned to increase his public visibility and show him off to major league clubs.

If so, it worked. The Yankees attempted to buy Peck in June, but balked at the Brewers' $40,000 asking price. Undeterred, the Brewers continued to search for a buyer. In August, a deal was struck, and the Philadelphia Athletics bought his contract from the Brewers for four players and an undisclosed amount of cash. And after allowing him to spend the remainder of the American Association season in Milwaukee, he was called up to Shibe Park for the last few weeks of the American League season.

Hal Peck would spend the entire 1945 season in Philadelphia, but returned to Wisconsin to take an off-season job at his father-in-law's dairy farm. When Spring Training rolled around in March 1946, he sent Connie Mack a four-page letter explaining what he saw as his own shortcomings in the prior season, along with a request for a raise. If no raise was forthcoming, Peck wrote, he would be more than happy to return to the Brewers. The Grand Old Man of Baseball, never one to let players set the agenda, shot back: "Stick to your (farm) job."

They did eventually come to an agreement (Mack was short on outfielders), and by the end of March Peck reported to the A's camp in Florida. But hard feelings may have lingered; just weeks later, Peck was sold to the Yankees. His career in pinstripes was short-lived, ending in a trade to Cleveland in December 1946. Reunited with Bill Veeck, now the owner of the Tribe, Peck played three years for the Indians. He was a member of the 1948 World Champions squad, although a knee injury limited him to mostly pinch-hitting during the last two years. After the 1949 season, Veeck sold the Indians, and one week later Peck was traded to the Pacific Coast League's Portland Beavers. Rather than head farther away from his home in Wisconsin, Peck retired from baseball.

Peck continued to be a popular fixture in Milwaukee. In 1960, he attended the first Milwaukee Braves' Old Timers day at County Stadium, which featured former Brewers facing off against former Boston/Milwaukee Braves in an exhibition game:

In his 1962 autobiography Veeck as in Wreck, Veeck described Peck as his "good luck charm" and his favorite player out of all the men who played for him. That may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that Veeck was able to sell Hal Peck to big league clubs twice.

Peck was also featured in this August, 1983 Milwaukee Journal retrospective on the Land o' Lakes amateur baseball league:

He passed away on April 13, 1995 at St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee, just a few miles south of the corner of 8th & Chambers Streets, where he used to stand at Borchert Field's home plate and launch fastballs over the fence.

Harold Arthur "Hal" Peck
Milwaukee Brewers 1940-42, 1943-44
(collection of P. Tenpenny)


  1. Great website, Chance! I was looking for information on Hal Peck for a piece I am doing on Vivian Anderson of the 1944 Milwaukee Chicks of the AAGPBL. I found it on your Borchert Field blog.
    Jim Nitz
    Menomonee Falls, WI

  2. Glad to help.

    I'd love to talk to you sometime about the Chicks - I'm working on a 1944 season review for the blog early next year.